Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1: 39-45 (46-55)

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Here we are again. Even though it comes around every year, the Fourth Sunday of Advent always seems to sneak up on us. It’s a busy time. There’s such a lot to do and seemingly not enough time in which to do it. I’m feeling a sense of urgency, and I suspect you are too.
There’s certainly a sense of urgency among our neighbors over at Urban Ministries. What’s even more noticeable is the sense of unease that pervades the place. You can almost reach out and touch it. There are more bad moods and arguments in the soup kitchen line than there are at other times. Too many people show up on the food pantry days and we have to turn several away. Earlier in the year this news might not elicit a strong reaction, but now it may result in an angry outburst, pleading, or even tears. This year is particularly difficult given the high rate of unemployment.
Some folks at Urban Ministries have a sudden sense of focus that they didn’t have just a few weeks earlier. James (all the names are changed), who normally seems perpetually distracted, is all of a sudden focused on getting a bus ticket back home to visit his grown children. Annie, who’s normally a fairly laid-back woman, goes into high gear to assemble all the trimmings of Christmas for her children. Alvin, who normally just hangs out on the corner, is suddenly looking for a way to make a little cash. Between my minimal Spanish and Maria’s halting English I learn that she will leave no stone unturned to make sure she has an extra blanket for a visiting relative.
The time leading up to Christmas is stressful for most of us, but even more so for the poor and homeless. In a season that’s so often defined by buying, how hard it is for those with no money for gifts. In a season that glorifies the concept of being home for the holidays, how devastating it is to have no home at all. In a season that celebrates families getting together, how painful it is to have blood ties strained by poverty, addiction, or abuse. In a season known for feasting, how sad it is to have little to put on the table. Even attending a church service this time of year seems daunting for those without even a coin to drop in the collection plate. For the broken in purse and spirit, Christmas is anything but merry. It’s a season of embarrassment, even shame.
This season may be painful even for those who are more prosperous. The dark secret hidden underneath that pile of presents may be a huge credit card debt. Family gatherings may expose the estrangement that lies behind the hearty greetings and forced festiveness. Christmas may well be an emotional and logistical nightmare for those who must tread carefully in the minefield of split families and step-relations. The anxieties and addictions we’ve held in check the rest of the year may get the better of us now. If we’ve lost friends and family members this past year we feel their absence sorely. In this season even those of us who are rich in worldly goods may feel poor on some level. We truly need some good news right now!
Good news is exactly what we get from today’s Gospel. The thing is, it doesn’t look like good news at first. Think about Elizabeth and Mary for a moment. Talk about embarrassment and shame! Elizabeth is pregnant at an age far past the acceptable age for childbearing. Her earlier childlessness was a problem in her world, to be sure, but this latest development could be seen as strange or even ominous. After all, to everything there is a season, and Elizabeth’s season for childbearing should be long past. And what about Mary? What do you think the neighbors were saying about this poor, unmarried teenager who claimed that an angel told her that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit? And if that’s not enough, consider what will happen to Elizabeth’s and Mary’s unborn sons. John the Baptist will be beheaded by Herod, and Jesus will be crucified by the Romans. Does this sound like good news to you?
At this point we may want to pause a moment and reflect. God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s values may not be the same as ours. As we’ve seen time and time again, God works through people and in situations that may appear very unpromising to us. In fact, God does some of God’s best work with powerless people whose lives most of us would consider impossible.
As first century women in Palestine, Mary and Elizabeth were certainly powerless. In their culture women had very little standing. They weren’t just women, but they were poor women as well.
But God saw these women differently than their contemporaries did. Remember that God chose Moses to deliver the Ten Commandments despite Moses’ stutter. Remember that God chose David, a younger brother and a lowly shepherd, to be be God’s anointed. In the case of David, Samuel explains that “The Lord does not see as mortals see, they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” The world’s standards of excellence and prestige don’t matter to God. What matters is what God finds in our hearts.
Luke expects us to make the connection between Mary and God’s work with the lowly. Mary’s song—known as the Magnificat—echoes the song of Hannah in First Samuel. Luke wants us to know that this choice of a low-status person isn’t an isolated incident or a novelty. Luke wants to make sure we understand that this is the way that God works. God judges and selects people not by worldly criteria but by what Martin Luther King called the content of their character.
Our lesson from Hebrews reinforces this idea. God isn’t impressed by our outward and material actions and appearance but by our inward and spiritual condition manifested in obedience to God’s will. Hebrews tells us, “Sacrifices and burn offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me” and “See, I have come to do your will.” What God wants is an obedient and willing heart, not a big show. God isn’t interested in having us bow and scrape to prove our love for God. God would rather we incarnated God’s love for us and show forth God’s praise, as the Prayer Book says, “not only with our lips but in our lives.”
So God’s ways are not our ways, and if you look all over scripture you’ll find plenty of evidence. Isaiah announces God’s reversal of the so-called natural order of things by saying, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” Doesn’t that remind you of Mary’s words in today’s Gospel lesson? She says of God, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
Mary’s next words announce that “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Where else in scripture have we heard words like these? We’ve heard them in the Beatitudes. Every one of the Beatitudes is a reversal of what we think is the usual order of things. We don’t think of the poor in spirit, or those who mourn, or the meek, or those who hunger and thirst for righteousness as blessed, yet Jesus says they are.
But Jesus in the Beatitudes and Luke in our reading today aren’t talking about how things are in their culture or in ours. They’re talking about who is blessed and who is valued in a community that looks forward to the coming of the kingdom. Here is real Gospel, good news about what the kingdom is like and good news about what and whom the kingdom values.
Jesus never said, blessed are the rich and powerful. God didn’t choose the daughter of the chief rabbi or the temple high priest to be the mother of Jesus. Instead, God chose Mary, a poor young girl from Nazareth. Jesus wasn’t born on a soft bed in a palace but on straw in a stable among the barnyard animals. The shepherds are the first to learn of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel. Remember, shepherds occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder.
Do you see the picture here? Jesus never said it was fun or lucky or enjoyable to be poor, but he said it was blessed. God is with the poor. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never run into Jesus at a country club or at the mall. I never even ran into him at Duke Divinity School. But I think I’ve met him in a soup kitchen a time or two, and I’m willing to believe he stays in the shelter from time to time.
God is with the poor, and poverty is only partly about money. There isn’t anyone among us who isn’t poor in some way. Many of us are poor in purse and many others of us are poor in health or poor in spirit. There is not a person on this planet who isn’t broken in some way or another. We all have our wounds, inside and out. This season, as we prepare to welcome God into our midst in the form of a homeless baby, let us welcome God into our brokenness so that it may be healed. Let us welcome God into our hearts and experience a transformation beyond any we could ever ask for or even imagine. Come Lord Jesus, heal us and save us. Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

19th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23

Hebrews 4:12-16

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It seems like surveillance cameras are everywhere these days. They’re at the bank, at the mall, and at the airport. There are even cameras at some intersections. The purpose is to catch people running red lights even if a policeman isn’t there to see them do it. These cameras are supposed to be for our protection, or so we’re told. They’re supposed to prevent crime, or at least identify the culprit and make punishment possible. The trouble is, these cameras don’t necessarily record only crime. They record our comings and goings when we are just minding our own business, committing no crimes at all. They might record us engaging in harmless but potentially embarrassing activities like fixing our underwear when it’s riding up or talking to ourselves. Anybody might eventually see us on film, from the temp agency security guard to the head of the FBI. Security cameras give me the creeps. Maybe they give you the creeps too.
You might well have the same reaction to the beginning of today’s lesson from Hebrews. God’s word seems to be the ultimate surveillance device. God’s word “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Does this make you uneasy? It does me. All of a sudden the idea of being caught on film trying to deal discreetly with a lingerie issue or committing a traffic violation doesn’t seem all that bad. God doesn’t just see. God judges. And God doesn’t just see and judge what we do. God sees and judges what we think, maybe even before we think it! God knows just what we mean, good or bad. I didn’t curse aloud at the driver who cut me off on I-40 yesterday, but God knows I wished him grievous bodily harm. There’s no hiding from that God.
These verses from Hebrews tell us that God isn’t only able to see everything we do and know everything we think. They tell us that God is purposeful and energetic about doing it. The word of God is “living and active.” The word of God is “piercing.” The Collect for Purity begins, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” All hearts. All desires. No secrets. No exceptions here. God is searching us out twenty-four/seven. Hebrews doesn’t mention that God rests on the seventh day from this activity. God knows if we’ve been bad or good, and what’s at stake here is far greater than what’s going to be in our stockings on Christmas morning. It’s downright terrifying, if you think about it.
But don’t be afraid. There’s more to this story. It would be really scary if the first verses of our lesson from Hebrews were the whole story. Sad to say though, lots of folks think this is the whole story. For a long time, religion has been used as a means of social control. The message can be twisted to suggest that God won’t reward those who don’t toe the line. It’s like telling kids there won’t be any visit from Santa if they don’t behave in the weeks leading up to Christmas. For adults the message is like this. Follow the rules and you’ll go to heaven. Break the rules and there will be hell to pay. If the police don’t get you in this life, God’s hammer of judgment will get you in the next. Don’t curse or steal or commit adultery because God is watching you. Don’t even think about doing these things, because God can see inside your head and inside your heart.
When people think God is no more than a big cosmic cop, they may or they may not behave themselves. What they are likely to do is to cut themselves off from God. Think about the parable of the talents from Matthew’s gospel. The master gave talents—money—to three slaves. The first two invested the money, but the third slave just buried it. He thought that his master would punish him if he didn’t return what he’d been given. The first two slaves made more money and were rewarded, but the third slave was punished. His master was angry not only that the slave made no additional money but that the slave believed the master would react badly. Because this slave assumed his master would treat him harshly, he lost even the little bit he had been given. This is what happens to us if we live our lives in fear of God’s judgment. Like the slave in the parable, we will cut ourselves off from God’s gifts if we are so afraid of God’s judgment that we fail to see God’s mercy.
Fortunately, that doesn’t have to happen. God’s purpose for us is not to catch us messing up. God is for us, not against us. Just listen to the words of the Nicene Creed: “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” God’s purpose for us is a saving purpose. God is the giver of all good gifts. God is about giving, not about taking away. God is like a loving parent who gives us the perfect present. It may not be the one we asked for, but once we’ve opened it we know it’s the very thing we most want and need.
Can you imagine a better gift than Jesus? Jesus is God’s ultimate gift to us. Jesus is incarnate proof that God is a loving parent rather than a tyrant. God’s word in Jesus, too, is living and active. Living and active, Jesus comes to save us. Our lesson from Hebrews tells us that in Jesus we have a great high priest. In temple Judaism, the high priest was the people’s intercessor with God. The high priest was the one who entered the holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement in the name of the people. Jesus approaches God on our behalf.
Our lesson from Hebrews today reassures us that Jesus the high priest not only intercedes for us, he intercedes as one of us. He has walked more than a mile in our shoes. He has lived in our very skin, not only in good times, but in the worst of times, through his death on the cross. We don’t have a high priest “who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” If you remember reading in the book of Isaiah, “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Does this sound to you like the son of a tyrannical God?
We’ll find more reassurance in next week’s gospel lesson, when we’ll read that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Our salvation is so important to God that God will hold back nothing, not even the life of God’s only son. “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” Hold onto those words. God can see into our hearts. God knows all the good and the bad in us, and still goes to enormous lengths to save us.
God has done so much for us. God continues to do so much for us. What then are we to do? First, you and I are to accept this love, believe in it, and trust it. Hebrews tells us that because we have a great high priest in Jesus we may “approach the throne of grace with boldness.” With boldness. Not in fear. Not like a child who’s been sent to the principal’s office. Since we have a great high priest in Jesus, we need not fear. We will not receive harshness, but mercy. We will find grace to help in time of need. There is no need to fear. Jesus has been sent “for us and for our salvation.”
So that said, let’s think again about God’s probing and all-seeing nature. Because Jesus is our great high priest, we’re not like Adam and Eve hiding in the garden because they were naked and ashamed. God’s purpose isn’t to shame us. God’s purpose is to save us. Since God knows us better than we know ourselves, God is able to do just that. Maybe we can come to know the same assurance as the person who wrote Psalm 139. He trusted God enough to write, “Search me out, O God, and know my heart.”
God looks into your heart and my heart all the time. God knows that what’s there isn’t always pretty. There’s at least as much sin and brokenness as there is love and wholeness. God could punish us. God could try to fix us. After all, that’s what we try to do with things that are broken. But God doesn’t do either of these things. Instead, God saves us. So when you think about God, forget about security cameras. Don’t confuse God with Santa Claus. It’s not about punishment. It’s not even about rewards. It’s about salvation, yours and mine. He came down from heaven for us and for our salvation. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate for our sake. As Saint Paul said, “If God is for us, who is against us?” Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, September 14, 2009

15 Pentecost Year B

Mark 8:27-38

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many years ago now my friend A. was a newly ordained priest. She was serving on the staff of a church in the New York City suburbs. On a particularly hot July Sunday morning, she was the designated celebrant at the Eucharist. The church hadn’t yet installed a central air conditioning system, and it felt even hotter in the church than it felt outside. She opted to put on her stole but not to wear the chasuble, the heavy poncho like vestment that the celebrant traditionally wears. The Prayer Book rubrics—look at them sometime if you’re interested—only stipulate that the stole must be worn. A. figured that everyone, including the other clergy who were serving with her that day, would understand. She was wrong. Right before the service began, the elderly rector emeritus asked her why she wasn’t wearing the chasuble. When A. said she was too hot, she was reprimanded with the words, “Don’t you know that it’s a good thing to suffer for Jesus? After all, he suffered for you.” The old priest didn’t speak these words with a smile on his face; he was entirely serious. In his mind, enduring physical discomfort was an appropriate, even desirable way of following in Jesus’ footsteps.
History provides a more vivid and far more extreme example of the idea that it’s desirable to suffer for Jesus. In the Middle Ages, groups of men known as Flagellants gathered and marched in procession, beating themselves and each other with leather whips with iron spikes attached. The motivation behind this apparent madness was that this self-inflicted punishment would atone for the sins that caused the deadly outbreaks of bubonic plague. They thought that by inflicting pain on themselves they were sacrificing themselves for the world’s sins. They thought they were imitating Jesus. Unfortunately, their violence extended beyond the harm they inflicted on their own bodies. According to historians, the Flagellants were known to harm clergy who objected to their practices. They were also reported to have killed Jews they encountered. The pope condemned their activities in the mid fourteenth century, but similar behavior in times of plague persisted for at least another hundred years.
While we can be more than reasonably certain that Jesus wouldn’t have approved of the practices of the Flagellants, Jesus would hardly have us shy away from suffering. On the contrary. He tells his disciples and the crowd around them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” As we all know, Jesus suffers plenty on the way to the cross and on the cross itself. But are we to understand that our suffering is a good thing? Are we to understand that Jesus actually wants us to suffer? I can’t be so sure about that.
A reasonable reading of Mark’s gospel and of the other gospels demonstrates that Jesus devotes considerable time and energy to alleviate or even eliminate the suffering of others. In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus first cast the demon out of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, although as you may remember, he didn’t do it without a little persuasion. Then he cured a man of his deafness and his inability to speak. In the same chapter that contains today’s lesson, Jesus cures a blind man at Bethsaida. In the next chapter, Jesus heals a boy with a spirit. Even the prohibition against doing work on the Sabbath didn’t keep Jesus from healing a man’s withered hand. For Jesus the remedy of the man’s disability was more important than observing the letter of the law. For Jesus alleviating suffering took precedence over following the dictates of religious tradition. The healings and exorcisms that I’ve just mentioned are just a few of the many that Jesus performs throughout the gospels.
Jesus isn’t just interested in easing the suffering caused by physical illness. Many, many times he aids people who suffered from possession by demons or spirits. Today we might refer to demon possession as mental illness or addiction. Jesus has great concern for the poor and for those who are social outcasts. Poverty causes physical suffering every bit as real as that caused by illness or injury; the poor don’t get enough to eat, often don’t have adequate shelter, and frequently have little access to medical care. Poverty and exclusion from society cause spiritual suffering too, which Jesus also seeks to remedy. Jesus feeds hungry people and takes away the discomfort of their empty stomachs. He eats with sinners and tax collectors who are shunned by so-called respectable society and the local religious establishment. Jesus doesn’t shy away from associating with the untouchables of his world. He seeks to remedy the pain of exclusion by drawing them into his circle of association.
We might want to consider all of Jesus’ healings and his compassion for the poor and the outcast in the light of his question to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers this question quite correctly by replying, “You are the Messiah.” In practical terms, though, what does this answer mean for Jesus’ followers? What kind of Messiah is Jesus? What will the kingdom that Jesus will bring as the Messiah look like? What difference does it make? What difference does it make to the disciples, and what difference does it make to us what kind of Messiah we are following?
All of the healing miracles that Jesus performs suggest that the kingdom he proclaims is a kingdom where shalom will prevail. Shalom means “peace” in Hebrew, but it means more than simply peace. Shalom also means health and wholeness. Shalom in the kingdom of God means that people won’t have to deal with the pain of hunger. Shalom in the kingdom of God means that people will no longer be afflicted by physical ailments, deformities, and limitations. People will no longer be possessed by demons. In the kingdom of God shalom means that relations between people are conducted in such a manner that there is no such thing as a marginalized person; all are welcome and included.
If the disciples of Jesus—and the disciples are us as well as the original twelve—seek to follow Jesus the healer, what does it mean in terms of how we conduct our lives and our relations with our neighbor? How is this type of discipleship different from discipleship that emphasizes the suffering of Jesus? Which kind of discipleship is likely to lead to a state of shalom?
There’s a real danger in investing too much in the idea that Jesus suffers. He asks us to take up our cross, true. But there’s a very real danger that we might come to see suffering as a good thing. If we see our own suffering or the suffering of others as any kind of a good thing, we’re less likely to intervene to prevent or stop suffering when we see it. If we think the struggles of others for food, adequate housing, decent health care, or inclusion in society are redemptive, or even just character-building, we’re less likely to provide any aid. Remember the practices of the Flagellants, who I mentioned earlier. Their self-inflicted pain didn’t lead them to treat others with kindness and compassion. Instead, they tended to deal violently with civil and religious authorities who opposed them.
So, as we’ll sing in the Offertory Hymn in a little while, “Take up your cross, the savior said.” Follow Jesus. Follow him as a feeder. Follow him as a healer. Follow him as a gatherer of souls. Don’t be afraid to suffer if that suffering is necessary. But please don’t think that’s what Jesus wants for you and me. It seems to me that while he would have us carry his cross, he has no wish for us to hang on it too. Jesus hung on that cross so that you and I wouldn’t have to. Amen.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pentecost 10B, Proper 14

John 6:35, 41-51

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you look at the cover of this morning’s service bulletin, you’ll notice that today is the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. There are lots of Sundays after Pentecost. Exactly how many there are will vary from year to year. The season after Pentecost is the longest liturgical season in the church calendar. Unlike the other seasons, it doesn’t refer specifically to events in the life of Christ. It’s no surprise then that another name for this liturgical season is Ordinary Time.
Just the name Ordinary Time might suggest that this liturgical season isn’t as important as the rest of the church year. As it happens, Ordinary Time coincides with a time of the year when many of us are first focused on taking vacations and then busy with starting the academic year. If we miss a few Sundays at church we don’t feel like we’re neglecting the observance of any major feasts. After all, it’s just Ordinary Time.
Normally, things that we consider ordinary are the things that we take for granted. Things that we consider ordinary are the things from which we have low expectations and which we hold in low esteem. It may be hard for us to conceive of the idea that it is exactly in the ordinary things of life that God does God’s work. It’s easy to think that God, who is anything but ordinary, wouldn’t choose to use ordinary things as the instruments of God’s purposes. And yet, God does exactly that.
Can you think of anything more ordinary than bread? Everyone eats bread, from the very young to the very old. Bread can be found in many different ethnic cuisines. There is bread for every budget. The person who receives a day old loaf of sliced white bread from the food pantry eats bread. So does the person who buys bread from the artisanal bakery that uses only organically grown whole grains. These breads aren’t identical to be sure, but both are easily recognizable as that staple of life, bread.
However ordinary bread may be, the person who doesn’t have enough to eat doesn’t take it for granted. And neither should we. It’s a substance that’s made by human hands, no doubt. The grain is grown, ground into flour, baked, and arrives into our hands usually via a financial transaction. When we go into the supermarket and pick our loaf off a well-stocked shelf, we might well lose sight of the fact that ultimately, bread is a gift from God. God created the earth and the fertile soil in which the grain grew. God endowed us with the capability of transforming the grain into nourishing food.
Jesus’ contemporaries, perhaps more so than we, were well aware of the value of bread. Bread was a food that was prepared daily in their own homes. Unlike most of us today, they were either immediately aware of the growing and milling of the grain or they were actively involved in its farming. But even in their time, that which was plentiful could be taken for granted, and it was. It’s easy to feel jaded about something that’s literally falling down all around you. That’s what happened when Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness and God sent down manna for them to eat. They had their bodily wants satisfied, and yet they complained anyway.
In last week’s Gospel reading the crowd came looking for Jesus. He had just fed the five thousand, performing a miracle, or what John prefers to call a sign. When the people find him, Jesus tells them that it is God who provides the true bread from heaven, the bread that gives life to the world. And Jesus tells them that he is the true bread, saying, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
In our reading today, the people around Jesus aren’t exactly pleased to hear him make this statement. John tells us that “the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’” Just for the record here, “the Jews” are the local religious establishment. Jesus and his disciples are certainly Jews too, and the usage of the term here isn’t meant to disparage the Jewish people.
And what is the nature of the people’s complaint? It’s that Jesus is “just” an ordinary person. How can it be that Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven? The people said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, I have come down from heaven?”
This questioning has a familiar ring to it. We’ve heard it before. We heard it in the Gospel of Mark several weeks ago. “On the sabbath [Jesus] began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.”
It’s an old and recurrent human story. For some reason it’s so hard for us to believe that God can not only be present in ordinary things, but that choosing the ordinary to express the extraordinary is something that God seems to do on a quite regular basis. If you think about it, you’ve probably had your own moment of seeing God’s hand in a very ordinary situation or person. You have maybe even witnessed one person being Jesus for another.
One of my most memorable experiences of this sort happened about fifteen years ago in a soup kitchen in downtown Charlotte. On that particular day we were serving pizza as well as the usual soup and sandwiches for lunch. Pizza was a special treat there, and a line quickly formed at the side counter where I was handing a slice to each person who came. I looked at the length of the line and realized that someone was likely to go away disappointed. The last two men came up to the counter; I had one piece left. I was prepared for a dispute. To my surprise, the first man said to the man behind him, “You have it.” Both that man and I were astounded, to put it mildly. It might not be a big deal for you or I to make this sacrifice, but among people who didn’t get much to eat period and who certainly didn’t get much of anything special, this gift was particularly remarkable. It was a remarkable gift from an ordinary, or some would even argue, less than ordinary person.
There’s that word ordinary again. Which brings us back to ordinary time, and time itself. Time is something we take for granted. Life is measured out in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and so on. The concept of time is one of the first things we learn in life. It’s always existed. Or has it?
Where did time come from? Remember back to the very first chapter of the book of Genesis. God created time along with heaven and earth: “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” When God finished creating heaven, the earth, and all living creatures, including the humans God made in God’s own image, God rested on the seventh day: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
God created time, so I don’t think it’s going too far to say that no time can be truly ordinary. The Psalmist said, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.” Any day, an ordinary day, is hallowed. And one day, two thousand years ago, God who created time and who created bread, and who created us, chose to come to earth as an ordinary Palestinian baby who grew up to be the man who said, “I am the bread of life.” Amen.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Pentecost 5
Proper 9
Mark 6: 1-13

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My twenty-three year old son didn’t want to be my friend on Facebook when I first asked him. He wasn’t very pleased to learn that many of my friends and I use Facebook, the social networking site. He said he liked Facebook much better when it was restricted to college students only. But my friends and I are hardly alone as older users, as many of you who are Facebook users well know. An article published in the New York Times a few months ago noted that Facebook usage increased 276 per cent among people aged thirty-five to fifty-four in the second half of 2008. The author of the article estimates that there are about seven million users in the thirty-five to fifty-four age bracket.
But these seven million users are a small number in comparison to the twenty-five million users under the age of twenty-five. Those of us in the aforementioned older age bracket, and in even older age categories, came to Facebook in middle age or later, with our adult identities already formed. The author of the Times article raises the question of how Facebook will affect the development of adult identity for users who begin using Facebook as early as middle school. It used to be possible to disappear after high school and try out a new identity—the class overachiever might party for a while and the class slacker might find a studious side he never knew had. But how will a person try something new when her high school self is preserved on her own page and on the pages of her friends? Will Facebook make it even harder to break out of roles a person has outgrown at home and in his community? It was difficult enough to do that in the old days before Facebook and other social networking sites. Many of us have had the experience of moving away from home and acquiring new knowledge and competence. We’re shocked when we return home for a holiday feeling like we’ve achieved a lot of growth and are treated as the person we used to be instead of the person we’ve become. This treatment is infuriating, and it might actually undermine our ability to perform at our new level. We might think there’s something wrong with us, but actually we’re up against the perennial human problems of resistance to change and expectations influencing our ability to perform.
Since Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, he isn’t exempt from these problems. In today’s gospel reading, he struggles with the contrast between who he actually is and his hometown’s ideas about him. Two weeks ago, we saw Jesus quiet a storm in response to the disciples’ distress. In last week’s gospel reading we saw Jesus as an effective and respected healer. Jesus’ reputation as a healer was strong enough that Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, approached Jesus as his last hope to cure a desperately ill daughter. While en route to Jairus’ house, a woman who’d suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years reached out and touched his cloak, believing that just touching the clothes of such a powerful healer as Jesus would make her well. The woman was indeed healed. This delay made it appear that Jesus came too late to save Jairus’ daughter; the people there said that the girl was already dead. But Jesus healing power worked again, and the girl got up and walked, much to the astonishment of those present. Jesus healing abilities have been shown to be effective. Also, Jesus’ healing abilities are highly influenced and supported by the faith of those who benefit from the healing.
But however great Jesus’ renown might be elsewhere, his family and his hometown aren’t impressed. Jesus’ own family actually doubts his sanity. Earlier in Mark’s gospel, in the third chapter, Jesus is in a house where so many are gathered around him that he and his disciples aren’t even able to eat. Those assembled there were clearly very impressed with Jesus, but Jesus’ own family was not. They weren’t interested in listening to him; rather they went to try to take charge of him because they thought that he had “gone out of his mind.” At the same time the scribes from Jerusalem accused Jesus of demonic possession.
Jesus doesn’t exactly fare much better when he returns to Nazareth and gets up to preach in the synagogue. The locals are more outraged than impressed. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon…?” It’s inconceivable to these Nazareans that someone from a relatively humble background could have anything to say that was worthwhile, let alone worthy of gathering crowds in other places. Rather than praise Jesus’ teaching, they would rather question how he could possibly have attained such a level of learning. Referring to Jesus as the “son of Mary” rather than as Joseph’s son constitutes a dig at the legitimacy of his parentage. The Nazareans question Jesus’ worth as an individual and also as a native of Nazareth. It’s almost as though they believe their own negative image in the region. If you recall, in John’s gospel the question is asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
By preaching as he did in the synagogue, Jesus appeared to have offended the norms of his community. People of his station from his community weren’t supposed to possess great learning and insight, much less display it. In such an atmosphere of hostility and lack of belief in Jesus’ abilities, Jesus found himself unable to perform the feats and miracles that he had been able to do quite recently. Apart from a few modest healings, Jesus “could do no deed of power there.”
Expectations are clearly important. Where there is faith, Jesus can perform miracles. Where there is little or no faith, Jesus finds his powers considerably diminished. Many of us have had the experience of flourishing under teachers or mentors who expected great things of us or of withering under those whose expectations of us were low. Clearly lack of belief in a person is damaging to individual performance. However, the potential damage goes far beyond that of hampering personal development.
When an individual, a community or a group does what the Nazareans do to Jesus, they close themselves off not only to the gifts of a particular individual. They close themselves off to the workings of God in the Holy Spirit as well. It’s pretty obvious that’s what happens when his community takes offense at Jesus exceeding the expectations of his humble origins. And fortunately for us, Jesus wasn’t deterred by his reception in his hometown. But what about other people, those of who are mere mortals and not the Messiah?
I’m thinking of Pauli Murray, whose life we celebrated this past Wednesday at a special Eucharist at St. Titus Episcopal Church. Plenty of people didn’t see the Holy Spirit working in Pauli Murray, and they put obstacles in her path towards living out God’s dream for her. The University of North Carolina didn’t think African Americans had any place in their law school, so Pauli studied law at Howard University, an African American institution. Her fellow law students at Howard didn’t think a woman had any business attending their law school, and she was actively discriminated against by her fellow students and the faculty. During the McCarthy era, Pauli was turned down for a position at Cornell University because her references, who were Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and Philip Randolph, were considered to be too radical. And finally, Pauli Murray was ordained priest in our church at a time when relatively few believed women were suitable for ordained ministry.
But fortunately for Pauli Murray, and for us too, there were people in her life who supported her pursuit of God’s dream for her, who nurtured this dream even in the face of all the naysayers. They saw that the Holy Spirit was working in someone the larger society considered an unlikely person—an African American woman from Durham, North Carolina.
So I ask you to look around at the people in your lives and notice where the Spirit is moving in them. The Spirit may be working actively through apparently unlikely people in our communities or even in our own homes. The Spirit may be working actively through people whose backgrounds and histories might suggest otherwise. Who ever thought an African American woman born in 1910 and growing up in Durham would ever become a lawyer and an Episcopal priest? And whoever thought that a poor Jewish carpenter from Nazareth would be the savior of the world? Amen.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

"Greater love hath no man ..." Today we remember those who laid down their lives for their friends and fellow Americans.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Easter 6B
May 17, 2009

John 15:9-17

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was a kid I had a favorite sweatshirt with a picture of the Peanuts character Linus on the front. The picture showed Linus shouting and saying, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” I’m not sure what the context might have been for Linus’ frustration. Maybe his older sister Lucy had hidden his security blanket yet again. In any case, Linus expresses a very familiar problem. It’s relatively easy to love people in general and in the abstract. It’s relatively easy to love people in general and from a distance.
This kind of love feels good and costs us nearly nothing. But it’s harder to love particular people in specific situations and when they are close at hand. Then we have to invest our time, we have to invest our energy, and we have to invest our emotions. We take the risk that we may be inconvenienced or even hurt in the process. It’s not always easy, it’s not always convenient, and it doesn’t always feel good.
But whether or not it feels good, this is the kind of love that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus isn’t simply making a suggestion here. Love isn’t something we might aspire to practice someday, when the time is “right,” when it doesn’t seem like it will involve messy complications. Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” If we’re not careful we might miss the word “commandment.” After all, we’re used to thinking of commandments as “thou shalt nots.” This commandment, though, tells us what to do.
We shouldn’t really be surprised, though. We’ve heard this commandment before. “Love one another” is at the heart of Israel’s religious tradition. In Matthew’s Gospel, when the Pharisee asks Jesus which is the greatest of the commandments, Jesus replies: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus hasn’t only told us what makes a loving relationship with God and neighbor. He has shown us throughout his ministry on earth what these relationships are like when they are lived out. Jesus has shown us what love looks like and what love acts like. He has shown us that love is close up and personal. He has shown us that love can have complications. He has shown us that love isn’t always easy.
Jesus fed the hungry of body and spirit. He shared meals with sinners, with tax collectors, and others whom his community considered untouchable. He healed the sick, and he didn’t hesitate to do it by laying hands on them. Jesus exposed himself to contagion and risked becoming ritually unclean so that others might be free of their suffering. He even healed on the Sabbath. Jesus considered a loving act to be worth the risk of making the local religious officials angry.
Jesus never stopped to consider whether those to whom he extended love were worth it. He didn’t ask himself or anyone else if the people he helped were deserving of his assistance. On Maundy Thursday he washed the feet of all his disciples. He didn’t skip over Judas, even though he knew Judas would betray him. Jesus didn’t exclude Peter, even though he knew that Peter would soon deny him. Jesus’ inclusion of Judas and Peter tells us that the love of others for us and their loyalty towards us aren’t a prerequisite for our love of them. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we should love even our enemies, saying, “for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
It isn’t even easy, though, to love even those who love us. It isn’t always easy to love those we think of as our nearest and dearest. Recently I came across an excerpt from a book called Children’s Letters to God. One of them went like this: Dear God, You say we are supposed to love all people. Don’t you know how hard this is? There are only four people in our family, and it’s almost impossible to love them sometimes.” Our comic strip friend Linus would agree. Once, after Lucy had annoyed him again, he said, “Big sisters are the crabgrass in the lawn of life.” The Bible offers examples of sibling relationships which are more strained than that of Linus and Lucy. Consider what the elder brother thinks about the Prodigal Son, and how Joseph’s many brothers behave toward him. Think, too, about the story of Cain and Abel.
But as difficult as family or other close relationships can be, Jesus isn’t letting us off the hook. Jesus commands the disciples and us to love one another. No loopholes, no ifs, no buts. There can’t be any real love of God without love for our fellow human beings. Verses from chapter four of the First Letter of John make this point quite clearly. “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
Jesus shows us that this love must go beyond the level of warm feelings only. Love must be active and embodied. Love must demonstrate concern for the material well-being of others. Also in the First Letter of John its writer asks: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Take a look around you when you leave church today, and you’ll see immediate evidence that we have far to go as a society in meeting this standard of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Assumptions of scarcity may prevent us from loving others as Jesus has commanded us to do. We may tend to think, erroneously, that there is only a finite amount of love to go around. We may see material goods as a limited resource and think that means that love, too, is limited. We may worry that giving to others of our love and of our goods means that there will be less of both for us.
But unlike us, Jesus operates from an assumption of abundance. He’s told us over and over about abundance in the Gospel lessons this Eastertide. There is no limit to the love that God the Father has for Jesus. There is no limit to the love that Jesus has for us. We can pass this love on to others freely because it comes from a source that will never dry up. This source will last until death, through death, and even beyond death.
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is what Jesus does for us. And not even death can put limits on the love of God in Jesus. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams explains this limitlessness in his book called Resurrection. He says, “death is normally a drastic severing of relations, death isolates, but for Jesus it is through death that a new and potentially infinite network of relations is opened up.”
We’re not all called to lay down our lives as Jesus did. But we all are called, commanded, to love one another as he loved us. Jesus never said it would be easy. Fortunately, there is more good news: we don’t have to fulfill this commandment on our own. Jesus provides us with the love to give and with active assistance in giving it. He showed us how to love throughout his earthly ministry. To help us after he has gone to be with his Father, he sends us the Holy Spirit.
Jesus has also given us help in a form that we can see, touch, and taste. God nourishes us and enables us to serve God and our neighbor by feeding our bodies and souls in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist each Sunday. In the Eucharist, we remember Christ’s death and resurrection, we offer our own bodies and souls to God, and we receive Christ’s body and blood in the bread and the wine.
But the Eucharist isn’t finished when we leave the altar rail. The post-communion prayer tells us that now that we’ve been fed spiritually, we have a responsibility to fulfill. The second post-communion prayer in Rite II, the one we use less frequently, is especially explicit on this point. We pray, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” At the dismissal, I’ll charge you to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” I pray today that you and I will indeed go in peace to love and serve the Lord, that we will go and love others as we ourselves have been loved, with a love that knows no limits, because it comes from God, whose love will never end. Amen.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Maundy Thursday

John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” As usual, Peter just doesn’t get it. At first he refuses Jesus’ offer to wash his feet. When Jesus tells Peter he must wash his feet, Peter wants his head and hands washed as well. Peter is so like the rest of us. When he realizes he’s said the wrong thing, he proceeds to put his foot even further into his mouth.
I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter. Even in a cultural context where foot-washing was a common practice of hospitality, it would have been downright weird to do what Jesus does and start washing feet in the middle of dinner. We can be pretty sure that it isn’t concern for hygiene or even comfort that’s motivating Jesus. I think we can also be sure it’s not ritual cleanliness that’s on Jesus’ mind. Jesus presents a model of servanthood, to be sure. But the lesson Jesus teaches by washing the feet of his disciples reaches beyond even servanthood.
By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus teaches them what it’s like to be in loving relationship with one another. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus teaches them about mutuality in love. Jesus turns the whole notion of the master-servant hierarchy upside down. He offers service to the very people who think it’s their job to serve him instead. By performing the service of foot-washing for his disciples, Jesus teaches them how to receive service. By this point in Jesus’ ministry, the disciples know what service looks like. They’ve seen Jesus touch lepers and minister to outcasts. They’ve seen him eat with people whom others consider beyond the pale. Now, as their own feet are washed by Jesus, they learn what it’s like to be the ones who are served.
The lesson that Jesus teaches in the foot-washing is one that we too would do well to learn. Most of us have internalized the idea that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. I’d venture to guess that most Christians believe that it’s better to serve than be served. Most of us like to think of ourselves as givers and helpers. It certainly is good to give and it’s certainly good to help. But if we are givers and helpers only, and are never receivers, we perpetuate a hierarchy in which some people are defined as being better than others. If we refuse what others offer, if we refuse the service of others, we may—without meaning to—deprive someone else of the chance to give and serve.
We may want to keep Jesus’ lesson in mind as we think about our relationships with our homeless neighbors. In our eagerness to consider how we may serve them, it may be easy to forget what it is that they may offer us. Yes, we want to emulate Jesus and be washers of feet. But Jesus, too, had his feet washed with ointment by Mary, who dried Jesus’ feet with her hair. Sometimes it is as blessed to give as to receive. Sometimes it is as blessed to be served as to serve. Mutuality is essential to truly loving relationships, like the one Jesus has with the disciples and like the one Jesus has with his Father. “Unless I wash you,” says Jesus, “you have no share with me.” Amen.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sermon: Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

Mark 14:1-15:4

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Earlier this morning we blessed and distributed palms, remembering Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem. The first part of our service resounded with triumph as we sang, “All glory, laud, and honor to thee redeemer king!” It would have been tempting at that point simply to say a few more prayers, to sing a few more hymns, and to go home. It would be equally tempting not to come back to church until next Sunday’s celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. We might wonder why we have to read the passion today and why we have to listen to what sounds like bad news when we know that the good news of the resurrection is just around the corner.
It would be tempting to skip everything that comes between the blessing of the palms and the joy of the resurrection, but that’s not what we’re going to do. We’ve just read Jesus’ passion from Mark and we’ll observe all of Holy Week, not just the Feast of the Resurrection. It’s not going to be easy. There’s no getting around it, but Holy Week is hard. It can be sad, it can seem depressing, and at times it even seems outrageous. After all, Jesus, an innocent man, has been sentenced to and undergone a horrible, shameful, death. In our reading of the passion, we’ve just acknowledged that not only did we not try to save him, we were part of the crowd that shouted, “Crucify him.”
Sentencing an innocent man to a cruel and humiliating death on a cross sounds not just like bad news. It sounds like news of the worst possible kind. Enough of shame, suffering, and death. Bring on the resurrection, bring on the power and the glory, and bring on everlasting life. Yes, but not yet.
Why not? Well, here’s why not. As hard as it seems to believe, if we skimmed over Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, we’d actually be missing out on some very good news indeed. If we were to omit the walk with Jesus to the cross, if we were to omit staying with him as he hung there, we’d miss out on God’s saving work in Jesus in the most painful and sorrowful parts of life. By focusing only on power and glory, by focusing only on the parts of the story that look like good news to our eyes, we’d miss out on the work that God does in Jesus in the most painful and sorrowful parts of our lives.
Last year I learned exactly how important this particular work of God in Jesus can be. I was serving as a chaplain intern at the state mental hospital in Butner. The hospital was a house of pain, the pain of the patients themselves and the pain of their families and communities outside its walls. It was hard for me at first to understand how most patients managed to keep going at all, so great were the difficulties in their lives.
One patient, Tom, told me how he’d been a Latin teacher at a prep school for a few years after college. Those years were happy for him. He enjoyed his work, he made friends, and he became engaged to another teacher at the school. His future looked bright indeed. But then Tom’s life started to go horribly wrong. He began to hear voices and to believe that he’d had a recording device implanted in a dental filling. His behavior became increasingly disturbing. Tom lost his job, his friends deserted him, and his fiancĂ©e broke off their engagement. By the time I met him, Tom had had twenty years of misery—no meaningful work and no companionship save for his family. Since he’d been confined to the hospital, he felt like even his family had abandoned him.
Tom’s story was heartbreaking by itself, but his chart told the saddest and most recent chapter. The chart contained a letter from Tom’s sister to Tom’s doctors. She wrote that she’d tried her best to support Tom in independent living, but Tom had a tendency to stop taking his medication, and without medication he became unruly and even violent. She’d try to manage these episodes, but the week before he’d tried to rape and strangle her. Tom’s sister wrote that she felt that she no longer had any choice but to ask that Tom be confined in a supervised setting.
I don’t know what sustained Tom’s sister in her sadness, but I do know what kept Tom from utter despair. Tom went to the worship service in his unit faithfully every Sunday and always had his Bible close by. Tom truly had a friend in Jesus. He was so eager to share this friendship that he’d often raise his hand when I’d preach so that he could fill in something about Jesus that he thought I’d left out. Tom would talk about how Jesus felt Tom’s own pain, how Jesus knew how he, Tom, felt because Jesus too had been abandoned by friends, and at the very end Jesus had even felt abandoned by God. Tom told me that whenever he felt especially sorry for himself and his situation, he’d think about Jesus nailed to the cross for him and then he’d feel less alone. While Tom wholeheartedly believed in God’s resurrection of Jesus, Tom felt his Jesus more in darkness and sorrow than in power and glory.
If we were to omit the reading of the passion today we would miss God’s saving work in Jesus at humankind’s darkest hours. The passion narrative tells us vividly that there is no place in our lives so dark that God in Jesus has not gone with us. If we are unfairly judged, so is Jesus unfairly judged and condemned to great suffering and death. If we feel abandoned by our communities, our friends, and even our families, so Jesus too knows what is like to be deserted. Jesus is excluded from respectable society at the time of his birth, Jesus is deserted by his friends in his time of greatest need, and at the last, Jesus too even feels deserted by God. As Sam Wells has observed, “Part of what it means for Christ to be savior is that he puts himself in the position of the one who needs to be saved.” Jesus on the cross is truly Emmanuel, God with us, and God for us. Amen.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Last Epiphany, Year B, February 22, 2009

Mark 9:2-9

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of my more vivid childhood memories is of the first time I jumped off the high diving board at our local swimming pool. I remember feeling a lot of pressure to jump off the high board. My younger brother was talking about going off the board, and to have a younger sibling do something like that before I did was simply unacceptable to me. Most, if not all of my friends had already made this rite of childhood passage. So despite my fear of heights and my lack of confidence in my swimming ability— and both of these endure to this day—I climbed the ladder and walked to the end of the board. I remember looking off the edge and thinking there was no way I could jump off. My next thought that there was really no way I could walk back to the ladder and climb down, unless I wanted to be deeply humiliated. So I jumped. Despite all my fears, all was well, and I made it back up to the surface and to the ladder, and lived to repeat this feat many more times before I got bored with it.
That standing at the end of the diving board for the first time feeling is the feeling I get at this time of the liturgical year. We’ve been through the festive season of Christmas and after that, through several weeks of Epiphany and all of its emphasis on the light of God made manifest in Jesus. Today is the Last Sunday in Epiphany, and in three more days it will be Ash Wednesday. Lent is almost upon us, and at least for me, entering into Lent can be as anxiety-provoking as jumping into a pool of cold water from a considerable height. As a child I wondered if I’d be equal to jumping off the high diving board; as an adult, and yes, as an ordained adult even, I wonder if I’ll be equal to the challenges that Lent presents this year. Those challenges, as you know, include self-examination and true repentance, truly turning around and returning to the path from which I’ve strayed like a lost sheep. Even when you’ve done, or at least tried to do these things a year before, they’re daunting.
My pre-Lenten anxiety is a pale shadow of what Jesus’ disciples experienced, but it provides a glimpse of the feeling they might have had at the point they come to in today’s Gospel lesson. At this point in their journey with Jesus they’ve had the rather heady experience of witnessing a few healings and exorcisms. They might well have been riding high. The experience was probably pretty exciting for a while. But Jesus has injected a whole other quality into their lives lately. He’s begun to talk about his suffering and death. He’s begun to talk about the cost of following him. What started out as a thrilling venture is starting to get frightening. Just before today’s reading, in the eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus teaches the disciples that the Son of Man “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” That sounds pretty scary to me, and Peter didn’t like it much better.
Peter’s reaction to this teaching is to argue with Jesus, and Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” And Jesus isn’t done setting Peter and his companions straight. Jesus lets the disciples know in no uncertain terms what the cost of discipleship is. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Whatever the disciples may have thought when they first began to follow Jesus, at this place in the journey they’ve begun to realize that the road ahead is harder than they ever could have imagined. Probably they’re wondering why they ever thought going down this road was a good idea. At the very least, they’re going to need sustenance for their journey. The disciples are going to need a real reason for walking a road that they now realize is fraught with peril. In the passage we’ve read today, they get this reason in the form of a full-blown manifestation of God that leaves them with no doubt who Jesus really is.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop. Mountaintops are one of what the Celts call thin places. A thin place is a place where the boundary between the earthly and divine is less clearly defined than it is in other places on the earth. If you find that you feel closer to God on top of a mountain, it’s really not surprising. Much of what happens on this mountaintop will recall God’s manifestation in the Book of Exodus both for the disciples and for us today. The location, the cloud, and God’s voice coming from the cloud echo God’s appearance to Moses.
But Peter’s response to the scene indicates that at this moment he isn’t understanding what’s really happening. Somehow he’s missing the associations and he’s missing the point. Peter suggests making “dwellings” for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He’s trying to impose finitude on an encounter with the infinite. What he does is to try to capture a moment that can’t possibly be captured. It’s the same kind of response that’s made humans worship golden calves and other idols for eons. We think if we can freeze a moment in time, if we can make something we can see and touch, we think we can possess it forever. But we can’t possess it forever, and anyway, possession isn’t the point.
Fortunately for Peter and for us, God is quite used to working with creatures who just don’t get it. So God actually speaks to Peter, James, and John, telling them quite clearly who Jesus is and what the disciples are to do. Speaking from the cloud, God says, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” Nine short words are all it takes. And it’s interesting exactly what God says in those words. Listen to him. God doesn’t tell the disciples to fall down and worship him. “Listen to him,” God tells them. In other words, God tells them to open their ears, hearts, and minds to take in what Jesus has to say and to heed his words.
God’s words to Peter, James, and John point to all the teaching that Jesus will do between this time and being put to death on the cross. Jesus tells the disciples that faith and prayer are essential to the healing of the boy with an unclean spirit. Listen to him. Jesus teaches the disciples that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Listen to him. Jesus cautions against the temptation to sin, saying, “If any of you put a stumbling block before any of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Listen to him. Jesus declared a special place for children in God’s kingdom when he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Listen to him.
One of the most disconcerting for us of Jesus’ teachings concerns his words to the Rich Man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. It isn’t enough simply to follow the commandments. Jesus tells this man, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” This instruction hits the Rich Man rather hard, and I suspect it hits us hard as well. Listen to him.
All of this listening, it’s to be hoped, will lead us to some action. It’s not enough just to witness God’s appearance on the mountaintop. We can’t stay on that mountain. We can’t, we oughtn’t, make an idol of the experience. Our job as Christians, as a people and a church who aspire to follow Jesus, is to come down off of that mountaintop and try to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. These footsteps aren’t easy to walk in. They don’t lead to fame and to riches; they don’t lead to any of the things that the world prizes. Jesus’ footsteps lead us to the cross. We don’t like that idea any better than the disciples did. But if we obey God’s injunction to listen to Jesus, following in his footsteps is exactly what we’re called to do.
At this point in our liturgical year, we’re about to enter the season where we follow Jesus to the cross. It’s a hard walk, with seemingly little sustenance available for a journey that sometimes may seem too hard to make. But thanks to our reading from Mark today, we know why we’re making this journey with Jesus. We know just who it is that we’re following. The one who we’re following is not just an inspiring leader. The one we’re following is even more than an important prophet. In following Jesus we are following God’s own Son. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Amen.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

December 21, 2008Advent 4 Year B (RCL)

Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B

Luke 1:26-38

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Here we are. It’s the Fourth Sunday in Advent already. Time flies in Advent—it’s not your imagination. Except for Christmas, it’s the shortest season in the church calendar. And, we’re shopping and baking and wrapping, and trying to carve out some time to prepare the way of the Lord, to welcome the Christ child, and to make room--a “mansion,” the collect says--to make room in our hearts and souls for the Christ who will return in glory. It’s a tall order for sure.
And today, finally, after some of the uncomfortable readings of the past few Sundays—the warning to keep awake, the voice crying out in the wilderness—today we hear a Gospel lesson we all know and love. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Luke’s account of the coming of the baby Jesus. I heard it at home, and acted out some part of it every year in Sunday school. You don’t even have to ever have gone to church to know Luke’s account. You’ve seen pictures of it in museums and you’ve seen it on Christmas cards. If you’ve seen the Christmas story on television, odds are you saw Luke’s version of it. That’s the version that’s used in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
So it’s easy to think we can sit back and relax today. After all, we know this story. At least we think we do. But the trouble is, when we hear a story that we’ve heard before, it’s easy to stop listening to it when we hear it again. I know I’ve caught my mind wandering when I listen to a reading I think I know really well. I don’t think I really need to pay attention. It’s easy to let this happen with today’s lesson from Luke.
The other problem with this lesson can be the tendency to get so fixated on the part about Jesus’ conception that the rest of it just slides by us. Some say that Luke’s account of how Jesus is conceived is absolutely true exactly as written. They might want to say, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” On the other hand, there’s a whole other group of folks who totally dismiss this part of the story. “It’s never happened that way yet,” they say. As you might guess, both of these approaches don’t get close to the heart of the matter here, and end up just dividing people.
So, we need to find another way into our passage from Luke. We need to find a way that will help us hear what God is saying to us. So, let’s look at our reading a little more closely.
Let’s think for a moment about just who it is that the angel Gabriel visits. Mary is a very young woman, maybe in her mid-teens. In her world, even more than in ours, her youth and gender didn’t give her status. In fact, the exact opposite was true. It’s notable that Luke doesn’t name Mary’s parents or say anything about them. Apparently Mary’s family connections aren’t worth mentioning. The Mary we’re meeting today isn’t the richly dressed woman you’ve seen in Renaissance paintings. The Mary we’re meeting today isn’t Mary the queen of heaven. Not yet, anyway. All we know about Mary is that she’s from Nazareth, a very insignificant town indeed. When Nazareth deserves a mention in John’s Gospel, it’s in the form of the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If you think of Durham’s struggle for respect among the cities of the Triangle, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it meant to be from Nazareth.
Luke also doesn’t tell us anything about Mary’s personal qualities. He doesn’t say that Mary was particularly good or kind, and he doesn’t say that she was outstanding in any way. Her status as a virgin says more about her youth than her virtuousness. Nevertheless, it was Mary whom the angel of the Lord came to visit. It was Mary, a nobody from nowhere, whom the angel Gabriel came to tell that in due time she would become the mother of the Son of the Most High.
Though Mary’s status is soon to change, at the moment she receives the angel’s visit she is nobody from nowhere in the world’s eyes. But if we look at other figures in the Bible, we’ll see that it’s nothing new for God to choose an apparently insignificant person for an important role in salvation history. David is mentioned in our Old Testament lesson today. David started out his career as a lowly shepherd. In First Samuel, God chooses David to be king instead of David’s more impressive older brothers. At the time David is chosen, Samuel says, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Apparently God saw something in David and in Mary that wasn’t obvious to most of the world.
What is special about Mary is that she’s willing to do what God asks of her. This willingness is no small thing. Mary could well have said, “Thanks anyway, but I have other plans for my life. I’m engaged to Joseph. Why don’t you ask somebody else?” Mary could have said no, but she didn’t. Instead, Mary made the faithful soul’s response to God’s call: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
So Mary, the girl who’s no one in particular from a place no one thinks much of, agrees to be the mother of the Son of the Most High. She puts her own life plans at risk to obey God’s call. Matthew’s account tells us that when Joseph learns that Mary is expecting a child by the Holy Spirit, his first idea is to “dismiss her quietly,” though he doesn’t actually do so. We can only speculate what the reactions of the other members of Mary’s community might have been.
Mary is indeed the model of faithful obedience to God. In the eyes of the world what she does is pretty crazy. This is a strange story indeed. But wait—we haven’t gotten to the really amazing part yet.
Just what is God up to? It’s odd enough that God has asked a humble girl to have God’s child. It’s odd enough that this girl, Mary, said yes. What’s really astounding here, though, is that God has chosen to be humble. God certainly doesn’t have to, but God has chosen to take on flesh, to experience life as we know it, not only with its joys but with all its poverty, pain, and sorrow as well. God has chosen to take on life with all its limitations, even the ultimate limitation that is death.
God has chosen to enter this world as a baby. In first century Palestine, there could hardly have been anyone more humble than a baby. At that time, the birth of a baby would have been greeted with somewhat more reserve than we celebrate births today. Before modern medicine, infancy was a perilous time and the mortality rate was high, as it still is in some places. And God entered the world as a very poor infant indeed. There wasn’t anything charming about being born in a stable with animals. It would be as undesirable as being born in a bus station bathroom would be today.
There we have it: Jesus was born homeless. It’s a truth so uncomfortable that it often gets glossed over. I remember feeling shocked when I heard the Reverend Jesse Jackson refer to Jesus as homeless baby many years ago. Jesus’s birth wasn’t the end of his homelessness. He conducted much of his ministry as a homeless person. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
So what, then, does Jesus’ homelessness mean for us on this Fourth Sunday of Advent? In a few short days it will be Christmas, and we will welcome the Christ child whether we are ready or not. Christmas will come whether or not our shopping and baking are done. The real question is, have we made room in our hearts? It’s not easy for you and me to make room. We live in the most affluent society the world has ever known, and most of us here today share in that affluence to some extent. Our busyness and our possessions tend to fill up our hearts and minds. But just outside our door live people whom prosperity has passed by. Our neighbors are pitied and even despised by those who don’t share in their poverty. But our neighbors may be more ready and more able and more willing to receive Jesus than we are. They may well have more room in their hearts than we do. It’s hard for us, in our culture that promotes self-sufficiency, to acknowledge our need for God.
The archbishop and martyr Oscar Romero said the following:
“No one can celebrate
a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud,
those who, because they have
everything, look down on others,
those who have no need
even of God—for them there
will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry,
those who need someone
to come on their behalf
will have that someone.
That someone is God,
Emmanuel. God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.”
If anyone experienced the abundance of God, surely it was Mary. My prayer for all of us here today is that you and I may make room in our hearts for Jesus, so that like Mary, we are able to make our answer to God’s call to us, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord.” Amen.

Christ the King Sunday Year A (RCL)

Christ the King
November 23, 2008

Matthew 25: 31-46

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Maybe you’ve been wondering just what it is that I do as a deacon. In church, as you may have seen, I read the gospel, make the call to confession, set the altar for communion, and dismiss the congregation at the end of the service. Outside of the church I have a ministry to the poor and homeless As part of my ministry, on most Tuesdays and Thursdays I conduct intake interviews at Urban Ministries’ food pantry and clothing closet. The purpose of these interviews is to determine eligibility for services. Everyone who comes and puts his or her name on the sign-up sheet is eligible to receive clothing. Eligibility for food is somewhat more complicated. A person must have children in the home, be over age 62, or be disabled. The person must be able to document custody of children, their own age, or official disability status. The system works, if somewhat imperfectly. Usually the truly needy get served. But I have a feeling that some hungry folks go away empty handed. Sometimes I’ll let the documentation go until next time if my gut tells me that the person is telling the truth but just doesn’t have the necessary paperwork. I find making these judgment calls unsettling at times. I feel like I’m in a position of more power than I’d like. I feel uneasy separating the sheep from the goats, in a manner of speaking.
Separating the sheep from the goats isn’t our job, if we heed today’s Gospel lesson. Separating the sheep from the goats is God’s job. And however much doing the separating may make me uneasy at the food pantry, if I’m being honest I have to admit that I fall into doing just that quite often. I certainly found myself doing it during the period leading up to the presidential election, and maybe you did, too. There’s something about dividing people into categories, such as liberal or conservative, so-called real Americans or suspect urban-dwellers, residents of red states or blue states—that can be deceptively satisfying. It’s seductive to think that we can organize the world into categories, and it’s seductive to think that we can make sure we’re on the right side of the divisions that we may deny making but that we secretly cherish.
What we learn in today’s parable from Matthew is that judging our sisters and brothers won’t get us to heaven. The righteous and the unrighteous alike in our reading ask the question, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The righteous and the unrighteous are alike in that neither of them is able to discern who is an ordinary poor person and who is their savior. The righteous and the unrighteous differ, though, in their actions. The righteous, that is, those who will inherit the kingdom prepared for them at the foundation of the world, those righteous folk don’t even try to discern who is who when they are helping those in need. Those who are righteous respond to people in need regardless of who that person is or whether they “deserve” to be helped.
In sharp contrast to the righteous, those who are accursed are sent to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. What’s implied in our parable is that if the unrighteous had only known that it was their lord and savior who appeared needy before them, they would have extended a helping hand. But they didn’t. We can imagine that the unrighteous in our parable were in the business of passing judgments on those who asked for help. The unrighteous took it upon themselves to sit in God’s place and to separate the deserving from the undeserving, to separate the sheep from the goats.
But it’s so tempting to try to separate the sheep and the goats of our world, the so-called deserving and undeserving of help. The intention is completely laudable given the assumptions of conventional wisdom. Our usual assumption is that resources are scarce—there is only so much food, so much money, so much time, and maybe even so much love—to go around. Given this assumption it only makes sense to try to conserve resources so that those who truly need them get them. This kind of thinking has shaped the procedures at Urban Ministries’ food pantry, and while the procedures are slowly being revisited, the assumptions behind them can be hard to give up.
Sara Miles encountered this kind of thinking when she set up a food pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Sara was a new Christian. She’d been raised with no religious tradition and came to St. Gregory’s in middle age. She tells her story in her book called Take this Bread. Sara was struck to her core by the radical welcome she felt at the Eucharist. When she came to the altar she received the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ, without question or qualification. While none of the worshippers “deserved” communion, they still received it every week. Sara Miles wanted to extend that same welcome and hospitality at the food pantry, which she set up around the altar at St. Gregory’s. There would be no intake forms at St. Gregory’s food pantry, no assessment of need or worthiness to receive service. Sara embarked on her project filled with the Spirit and filled with enthusiasm. She expected that others would feel as she did.
Sara Miles had a great surprise in store for her. Though she eventually got the pantry going, she was told that at a parish staff meeting, the first reactions ranged from “over my dead body” to “when hell freezes over.” She was warned by the food pantry director at the San Francisco Food Bank that “very few people trust poor people enough to just give away food without conditions.” Still, Sara Miles persisted in her vision of a food pantry where all were welcome and all were served. A street-wise volunteer warned her that her system of no questions and no accounting resulted in double-dipping by some patrons. She protested, saying “[Jesus said] ‘feed my sheep.’ He didn’t say, ‘Feed my sheep after you check their ID.” Still, there were others who supported her. A former food pantry patron turned volunteer told her, “ I don’t care if we give food to folks who don’t look needy. I didn’t always look like I needed help either.”
Sara continued to meet resistance as her food pantry became established and began to have more patrons than it could handle. Some church members complained that the food pantry patrons dirtied their sanctuary and littered the church grounds with cigarette butts. Other church members insisted that the pantry didn’t make any sense because the needs would never be filled. Some church members protested against the food pantry on the grounds that its patrons might be dangerous. Early on, though, Sara Miles understood that sense, in the meaning of “common sense” or conventional wisdom didn’t apply in this situation. Right around the time she started the food pantry, Sara was baptized. She observed that by being baptized she was doing something that on the face of it didn’t make much sense either. Sara said that in some ways it was crazy. After all, in her own words, she said she was “signing up … for a religion with a tortured man at its center.”
A religion with a tortured man at its center. For us, God took on human form and suffered death on a cross, scorned and mocked as the “king of the Jews.” Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, also called Christ the King Sunday. Today is a day when we feel the contrast between the royal imagery we’ve learned to associate with Christ and the imagery of the Jesus who talked of sheep and goats, the Jesus who was the unlikely king who reigned from a tree. Two thousand years after Jesus’ death on the cross, in our churches made of stone where worshippers sit in polished wood pews and our clergy wear expensive vestments, our vision of Christ tends to be of the “Crown him with many crowns” and “Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun” variety. It’s hard to envision the Jesus whose feet got dirty. It’s hard to imagine that Jesus didn’t always know exactly where his next meal was coming from. For us today it’s all but unthinkable that Jesus was greeted with jeers and stones and worse in some of the places he went during his ministry. Of course, if Jesus showed up here at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church on West Main Street in Durham, we would welcome him. Of course we would. Or would we?
I hope we would. I think we would welcome Jesus here at St. Joseph’s. We do our best to welcome the homeless, the hungry, and the lost in our neighborhood. We don’t ask too many questions as we offer a meal, as we offer a place to sleep that’s at least slightly shielded from the elements, and as we offer an encouraging word. In the eyes of most of the world, our practice doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Our homeless neighbors may well be homeless because of bad choices they’ve made as well as bad luck. But we don’t minister with our homeless neighbors because it makes sense. We don’t minister with our homeless neighbors because we’re any more virtuous than other people in our neighborhood. We don’t minister to our homeless neighbors because we’ve judged them to be worthy of our help. We minister with our homeless neighbors because Jesus has told us that by feeding the least of his family when they are hungry, clothing them when they are naked, and visiting them when they are in prison, we are feeding and clothing and visiting him, too. We’re not to judge. We’re not to assume that we can figure out who’s worthy and who’s not, that we can figure out who’s a sheep and who’s a goat. Things aren’t necessarily what they seem. Remember, we’re baptized into a religion that has a tortured man at its center. Christ is an odd sort of king indeed. And what did he tell us? “Feed my sheep.” So we just feed them, and we don’t bother checking ID. Amen.

September 14, 2008 Proper 19 Year A (RCL)

Proper 19, Year A, RCL
Matthew 18:21-35

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It’s easy to forget when you live in the Triangle area, but we live in a state that’s sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible belt. In this part of Durham, it might seem that brunch trumps church as a Sunday morning activity. We’re reminded of our location, though, when we get out on the interstate and see the cars with various and assorted religious bumper stickers. “My God is an awesome God,” proclaims one. Another popular bumper sticker says “Honk if you love Jesus.” I don’t know how you feel about this one, but if I hear someone honk while I’m driving, the idea that they love Jesus isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. As a former New Yorker I associate a honking horn with the message, “Hurry up, stupid, before the light changes again.”
The bumper sticker that I find most intriguing says, “Christians aren’t perfect—they’re just forgiven.” I kind of like this one, though I think I’d like to amend it to say, “We’re all not perfect, but we’re all forgiven.” Exactly why I’d like to make that change is a topic for a whole other sermon. What I’d like to talk about today is that we’ve all received God’s free gift of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is ours. We may accept it, or we may reject it; the choice is for you and me to make. God’s forgiveness is a done deal, from God’s point of view, at least. The question for us is what do we do with that forgiveness. This question is at the heart of our Gospel lesson for today.
Peter asks Jesus a seemingly simple question: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” How many times should I forgive, Peter wants to know. Seven? More than seven? It’s a question we ourselves might ask. Those of us who have to deal with difficult people in our lives—and that’s all of us—have asked ourselves that question seemingly endlessly. How many? Asking “how many” means that we’re counting, wondering what the magic number is that means we have done enough and can go back to being mad.
Jesus’ answer puts Peter’s question into another perspective altogether: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” If you’re thinking that seventy-seven times means that you just have to keep on forgiving forever, that’s exactly the point that Jesus is making here. What he’s doing is telling Peter to forget about counting, to forget about keeping track. If we’re counting how many times we’ve forgiven, we’ve actually not forgiven at all. Counting means we’re just waiting until we can say we’ve had enough and can exact whatever penalty we’ve been planning all along. What Jesus is telling us when he says seventy-seven times rather than seven is that calculation has no place in forgiveness.
After this exchange between Peter and Jesus, Jesus tells the disciples a parable. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. The first slave in the parable owed the king ten thousand talents. How much, exactly, was ten thousand talents? A talent was the largest monetary unit in Jesus’ time, and one talent was equal to the amount a manual laborer would earn in fifteen years. Ten thousand talents was an impossibly large number to owe. The annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. There is no possible way for this slave to ever be able to repay ten thousand talents, so the slave begs for compassion. The king forgives the slave’s debt and lets him go.
No sooner is the slave released from his debt to the king than he demands that a fellow slave pay him back the hundred denarii that this slave owes him. A hundred denarii wasn’t a trifling amount of money—it was equal to about 100 days’ wages for an ordinary laborer. But a hundred denarii was a trivial sum compared to ten thousand talents. The slave who had been forgiven his enormous debt wasn’t willing to extend the same forgiveness to his fellow slave that the king had extended to him.
In the parable, the consequence for the first slave’s failure to forgive is that the king withdraws his own forgiveness. Instead of being freed, the first slave is sentenced to torture. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus seems to be saying that those who fail to forgive others as God has forgiven them will suffer a similar fate.
Now this sort of judgment may seem harsh to you. It certainly seems harsh to me. At this time we might want to remember something about the divine inspiration of scripture. I’m not questioning that scripture is divinely inspired. The vows I made at ordination involved affirming that the Holy Scripture is indeed the word of God. But unfortunately divine inspiration doesn’t mean that the word of God came directly from God’s mouth to our ears or to the printed page. The mediator of God’s word, the person who wrote down the Gospel of Matthew, was a human being much like you or me. He was earnest and he was reverent, and he was probably something of a scholar in his time, but the man we know as Matthew was human and fallible. Because he was human and fallible he couldn’t resist adding a bit of Matthew to the story Jesus told. Matthew allegorized this parable. This means that he intended us to understand “king” to mean God and “slave” to mean human. In this understanding of the parable, God is as harsh as an earthly king might be.
I’m going to suggest a somewhat different reading of this text. From my own study of the scripture and from studying the best commentaries I can find, I don’t think that God withdraws God’s gifts. The God I know, love, and worship doesn’t act vindictively; my experience of God is that God’s way of operating in the world is through love, not wrath. Our tradition tells us that God is ultimately merciful. When we recite the Nicene Creed we say, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” For us, not against us. God came down from heaven incarnate in Jesus for us and for our salvation, not to straighten us out. In the Prayer of Humble Access in Rite One, we affirm that God is “the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”
What I’m going to suggest to you this morning is that God won’t stop forgiving you and me if we fail to forgive our brothers and sisters. Not at all. But, and this is a major but, if our hearts are so hard that we fail to forgive, God may just as well have not forgiven us for all the difference it makes to us. If our hearts and minds aren’t in a state where we can forgive others, neither will we be able to appreciate and experience the forgiveness that God has freely offered to us.
If we don’t forgive those who’ve wronged us or those who we feel owe us something, we might think we’re hurting them. We might feel that we’re giving them what they deserve. But if that’s what we’re doing, we deceive ourselves. Forgive seventy-seven times, Jesus tells us; get out of the accounting business. And by not forgiving, we’re ultimately hurting ourselves as much or maybe more than the one we won’t forgive. I love Anne Lamott’s words on this subject. She has said that not forgiving is like eating rat poison oneself and waiting for the rat to die. Not forgiving is worse than a pointless exercise. It hurts the other, it hurts us, and worst of all, not forgiving closes our hearts and minds to the possibility of God’s forgiveness.
But what if I’ve really been wronged? What if someone owes me a huge debt? That debt, by the way, may be monetary or it may not. When we say that something is the least someone could do for us, we feel like we’re owed something every bit as real as money and maybe even more important. Forgiveness isn’t easy, and it’s important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean we give someone the chance to wrong us again. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we pretend the wrong never happened. Forgiveness isn’t easy—this can’t be said too many times—and it might even seem downright unreasonable in certain circumstances.
What may help with the difficult or even seemingly impossible task of forgiving is remembering that we don’t have to do it alone. Our collect for today begins with the words, “O God, because without you we are not able to please you…” Also, do you remember what response we make to the things that are asked of us when we make and when we renew our Baptismal covenant? The answer we make is, “We will, with God’s help.” With God’s help. We don’t have to do it alone. God knows it’s not easy for us to forgive. God knows that we can’t do it alone, and God doesn’t expect us to. At times forgiveness requires a miracle, and where there is a miracle, there is God.
When I began to look at our lessons for today I was struck by the lessons that were chosen. It’s easy to connect the Epistle for today to the Gospel, but what about the Old Testament lesson? What could the parting of the waters of the Red Sea possibly have to do with forgiveness? I see a couple of connections. The first is that God was constantly with the Israelites in their journey; the Israelites were never alone at any point. Neither are we in our attempts to do anything. We are certainly not alone in our efforts to forgive.
The other connection between the Gospel lesson and the Old Testament lesson today is that the parting of the waters in Exodus is one of the great miracles that God works in the Bible. Forgiveness is another great miracle, and if you’ve ever struggled to forgive, and most of us have struggled mightily, you know what a great miracle reaching a place of forgiveness can be. Notice that in the Exodus story Moses stretched out his hand, but it was God who actually parted the waters. There is human and divine cooperation here. So too with forgiveness. We make the attempt to forgive and God makes the forgiveness possible. By God’s parting of the waters God liberated the Israelites from Pharoah’s oppression. By God’s making it possible for us to forgive, God liberates us from the tyranny of our own hardened hearts. Amen.